While scales of equipment varied a good deal in practice, a well-outfitted tank battalion of 1941 with German material had two or three light companies of 17 Panzer IIIs and 5 Panzer IIs, and one medium company of 10 Panzer IVs and 5 Panzer IIs. The Panzer IIs were filler, to be used and used up for reconnaissance and other secondary missions until enough IIIs and IVs became available. The tables reflected production figures that trailed far behind unit requirements. Hitler initially asked for as many as a thousand tanks a month. Minister for Armament and War Production Fritz Todt responded that it would cost two billion marks, require a hundred thousand skilled workers, and disrupt submarine and aircraft deliveries originally secured by cutting back the construction of new munitions plants.
The High Command received a similarly discouraging answer when it pressed for an increase in tank production from the 200 or so a month that remained standard. Goals of delivering 2,800 Panzer IIIs and IVs by April 1941 remained chimerical. In May 1941, plans were developed for a major production program: more than 34,000 vehicles to complete equipping the mobile divisions. The target date was 1944. Meanwhile, actual tank production reached a low of 120 in September 1940. One new panzer regiment was built around Panzer IIs originally adapted for underwater movement as part of the aborted preparations for invading Britain. As a point of comparison, as late as April 1941, material shortages and production problems meant that seven million rounds for the standard 105mm howitzer existed only as empty shell casings—no propellant, no explosive. By comparison the panzers were well off.
One consequence was the inability to provide three battalions of up-to-date tanks for more than three of the reconfigured divisions that went to war against the USSR. Three battalions provided organizational flexibility. Three battalions might sustain effectiveness by consolidating. Two were far more likely to reach a tipping point, especially in fast-paced offensive action without regular pauses for maintenance and regular replacement of losses. A second loser in the armaments sweepstakes was the assault gun force. Four of the first six batteries served in France. Their low silhouettes and high firepower proved their worth from the beginning of the campaign. Regiment Grossdeutschland had nothing but praise for its six organic Sturmgeschütz (StuGs) at Stonne for working hand in hand with the riflemen in street fighting, demolishing barricades, and carrying heavy weapons and ammunition. The gun’s limited traverse was not a problem in a direct-support role, while the vehicle’s presence alone gave a valuable boost to the foot soldiers’ morale.
The artillery, whose role in the West had been significantly limited compared to the Great War, was fully convinced and began training the first battalions (three six-gun batteries) in the summer of 1940. Service with the StuGs has been described as popular because it was the quickest way to decoration and promotion. The assault artillery did win more than 150 Knight’s Crosses, with lesser medals in proportion. But they were won the hard way, and throughout the war the guns were manned by volunteers.
Men were easier to find than equipment. Despite the support of two powerful branches of service, assault gun production remained limited—around 30 per month and not exceeding 50 until June 1941. As a result only two battalions every three months, later three every two months, joined the pre-Barbarossa order of battle. Instead of being assigned to divisions, as originally intended, they were held as army troops, sent where need was greatest—another reinforcement of armor’s elite, almost separate, status even when its crews wore artillery colors.
The emerging differentiation between the armored force and the rest of the army was further exacerbated by the absence of progress developing self-propelled antitank guns. The concept was simple enough: attach a gun to the chassis of an obsolescent tank, of which the army had an ample supply. Nevertheless by June 1941 the inventory of such vehicles amounted to about 150 of the 47mm Czech guns on Panzer I bodies mentioned in Chapter 3. Doing the same thing with captured French equipment does not seem to have even been considered at higher levels, though two tank regiments were eventually organized with French vehicles.
Antitank defense in general had a low practical priority in the run-up to Barbarossa. The near-useless 37mm towed gun was in the process of being more or less replaced by an excellent 50mm/62-caliber piece. Its early production runs were so small that they were issued to the infantry by two-gun sections. Infantry companies were issued small-bore antitank rifles: more sophisticated and less dangerous to their users than their World War I forebears, but effective only against the kind of light tanks that everywhere were being phased out of service. And doctrine expressly forbade using already scarce assault guns in an antitank role. The Landser in Russia would spend too long depending on well-placed hand grenades and overloads of nerve—or desperation.
The desert war’s principal contribution to the panzer mystique is its status, affirmed alike by Rommel’s critics and supporters, as a “clean” war. Explanations include the absence of civilians and the relative absence of Nazis; the nature of the environment, which conveyed a “moral simplicity and transparency”; and command exercised on both sides by prewar professionals, encouraging a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game and a corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtue.
The nature of the fighting also diminished the close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. Last stands, as opposed to stubborn defenses, were uncommon. Usually a successful German attack ended with a compound breakthrough. With tanks seeming to appear everywhere on the position, with no effective means of close defense, capitulation was an acceptable option. The large numbers of troops usually involved also inhibited both on-the-spot killings and post-action massacres. Hard war did not necessarily mean cold murder. Surrender offered and accepted correspondingly became part of the common law of the desert.
Creating preconditions for surrender was another problem. The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles.
The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.
Not until the arrival in autumn 1942 of the US M3 medium did the balance begin to shift. With a 37mm high-velocity gun in its turret and a sponson-mounted 75mm, the M3 was a poor man’s Char B without the armor of its French counterpart, with a high silhouette that made it difficult to conceal, and with a gasoline engine that caught fire easily. But there were a lot of them, and their reinforcement in time for El Alamein by more than 300 Shermans definitively tipped the armor balance in Allied favor. The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.
Nor was the Afrika Korps a chosen force, the best of the best. Its medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Its equipment was Wehrmacht standard, with the addition of a few hundred sun helmets—most of them soon discarded in favor of field caps—and a few thousand gallons of camouflage paint in varying shades of brown. But the Germans had confidence in themselves and their officers, in their training and in their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Legos: individual pieces, once fastened together, would hold even if the construction seemed awkward.
That flexibility proved vital. German doctrine based on avoiding tank-on-tank combat meant that when it occurred it was likely to be a close-quarters melee. German gunnery training after the 1940 campaign stressed snap shooting and rapid fire—not least because of the limited effect of single hits on French armor plate. The British for their part during much of the campaign remained committed to destroying German armor by direct action, and their tanks were usually fast enough to counter the tactical maneuvering effective in 1940.
Rommel and his subordinates in consequence recast the section of the panzer-war handbook that addressed antitank operations. In their developed and ideal form, German positions were structured by interlocking antitank-gun positions supported by infantry, the panzers deployed behind them. Contrary to belief at the time, which eventually acquired the status of myth, the 88mm gun was not a standard element of German antitank defense in the desert. Its high silhouette made it vulnerable; its limited numbers made it an emergency alternative. The backbone of German defenses was the 50mm gun, able to knock out any British tank that could move well enough to survive in desert conditions. By 1942 these were being supplemented and replaced in turn by 75mm pieces, heavy and difficult to move but effective even against the new American Grants and Shermans. Eventually the 90th Light Division would be configured as a virtual antitank formation, with 75mm Pak 40s assigned at rifle company level.
British tanks repeatedly and obligingly impaled themselves on the German guns. Robert Crisp, a South African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment, observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use it as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As Rommel once asked a captured British officer, “What does it matter if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”
British armor enmeshed and worn down by the antitank guns was disproportionately vulnerable to counterattacks from flank and rear by panzer forces numerically inferior but with the advantage of surprise—an advantage enhanced by the ubiquitous clouds of dust obscuring desert battlefields as powder smoke had done in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Superior numbers were unnecessary. Properly timed, a single hard tap could shatter an already-confused British armored brigade like glass. Success depended on timing, and for that the excellent German radios were important. But even more important were situational awareness, initiative, and mutual confidence—the infantrymen and antitank crews knowing they were not being sacrificed; the artillery concentrated to provide fire support; the tankers confident the screening forces would hold while they moved into position. Time and again, from Operation Battleaxe in 1941 through Operation Crusader in November 1941 to the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942, the technique worked—and set up the attacks that became Rommel’s signature.
The panzers’ offensive tactics in the desert followed and extended patterns established in Europe. Speed, shock, and flexibility repeatedly proved devastating against a British opponent whose reaction times were sluggish, whose tactics were uninspired, and whose coordination was so limited that desert humor described it as existing only when the commanding officers involved had slept with each others’ wives before the war—a significant handicap, one might think, to multiunit operations.
Reconfiguring the panzers’ command profile would have meant little if the armored force was not restored materially. That was the main challenge during the winter and early spring of 1942. Overall losses during Barbarossa amounted to more than 1,100,000 men, and there was no way they could be entirely replaced before resumed operations enlarged the gap. Halder calculated the resulting loss of combat effectiveness as from half to two-thirds in the infantry. The mobile divisions were better off in personnel terms, but not by much, especially given the loss in specialists incurred by such measures as using dismounted tankers as infantry during the desperate winter months. More than 4,200 tanks had been destroyed or damaged during Barbarossa. There was no way an overextended industrial network and an overburdened repair system could compensate. As late as March, the gap between tables of organization and tanks in unit service was more than 2,000. The corresponding shortfall in trucks was 35,000. A quarter-million horses were dead, a loss no less serious to an army still largely muscle-powered and likely to remain so given an increasingly untenable gap between the Reich’s oil resources and the Wehrmacht’s needs.
Hitler had planned on using new production to expand the army to 30 panzer divisions. The best the overstrained factories and replacement systems could deliver was four: three built around existing army regiments and one formed by converting the 1st Cavalry Division. Grossdeutschland was upgraded to a motorized division, with selected recruits and a guarantee of the latest equipment as it became available. Authorizing tank battalions for the four SS motorized divisions absorbed still more production. Some effort was made to replace quantity by quality. The two light companies of each tank battalion were authorized 17 J or L versions of the Panzer IIIs with the long-barreled 50mm gun. An increasing number of the medium company’s 17 Mark IVs were Fs and Gs, with a 75mm high-velocity gun that was the first clear match for the T-34 to appear in the armored force. These up-gunned tanks were issued to replace losses, so throughout 1942 panzer battalions would operate with mixed establishments of shorts and longs.